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Whatcom County Jail: Whatever happened to 2004 tax?

Deputies prepare minimum-security inmates for transport next to the recreation area at Whatcom County Jail’s Interim Work Center on Tuesday, June 30, in Bellingham. The inmates were taken to Whatcom County Jail to work in the kitchen. The work center was built and is operated with money from a 2004 sales tax increase.
Deputies prepare minimum-security inmates for transport next to the recreation area at Whatcom County Jail’s Interim Work Center on Tuesday, June 30, in Bellingham. The inmates were taken to Whatcom County Jail to work in the kitchen. The work center was built and is operated with money from a 2004 sales tax increase. The Bellingham Herald

As county leaders have considered using a sales tax increase to pay for a new Whatcom County Jail, one question has surfaced again and again: What happened to the money from the “old” jail tax?

A decade ago, 62 percent of county voters approved a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to pay for a new jail.

But the amount gathered by that tax won’t come close to covering the cost of a proposed $97 million jail near Ferndale.

Whatcom County Council agreed — in a 4-3 split vote on June 23 — to ask voters to approve a new 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) in the November general election. The money would be used to build a new jail, although how large that jail would be is still unclear as a jail-use agreement has still not been finalized by the county and cities.

At the time of the first jail sales tax, county planners expected it to raise about $37 million by 2015.

But with the recession, the estimate from 2004 — based on an expected 5 percent annual increase in sales tax revenue — was about $6.5 million off. The measure actually brought in about $31.7 million between 2005 and 2014.

The plan was to use the revenue to help build an interim-minimum security work-release facility to ease the strain on the current jail near the County Courthouse, then focus the rest of the money toward a new jail.

Specifically, state law allows for that tax to be used for a variety of needs, including “financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, reequipping, and improvement of juvenile detention facilities and jails.”

The interim facility was opened in 2006 in the Irongate area to house up to 150 minimum-security inmates.

Of the $10 million price tag for the land and building, $2.4 million was paid for by the 2004 jail sales tax. The remainder was picked up by the seven Whatcom County cities, a rural sales tax earmarked for public capital projects, a real estate excise tax, a grant from the state Department of Corrections, and about $80,000 from the county’s general fund.

Before it was built, the county planned to use the 35,000-square-foot facility for a few years while building a larger permanent jail, then look to sell it for industrial purposes. Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has said the plan is still to sell the building once all of the inmates from both jails are relocated to a new facility.

The rest of the revenue from the 2004 jail tax went to a variety of jail needs.

The vast majority, $16.9 million, has been spent operating the minimum-security work center.

About $6.1 million of the revenue was credited to the cities from 2006 until 2014 to lower their bed-day costs, which are paid per inmate they house in the jail.

Roughly $3.5 million went toward upgrading the electronic control system at the jail near the courthouse, and making other repairs there.

The rest, about $2.8 million, has gone into planning for a proposed 521-bed jail.

Plans for 2004 tax revenue

The county’s bond payment on the proposed $97 million jail, to be located on LaBounty Road, is estimated at about $6.3 million per year for 30 years. Louws has proposed that payment could be covered by the 0.2 percent sales tax increase that will go before voters in November.

So where will the money from the 2004 tax go from here on out?

County staff members estimate the cost of operating the new jail would be about $16.4 million in 2019, the year they hope the facility would start housing inmates. At that rate, operating the jail could cost roughly half a billion dollars over 30 years.

Because the cities’ bed-day credits from the 2004 tax sunsetted last year, the county now plans to pour all of the revenue from that tax into its own bed-day costs.

For 2019, the county estimates it would get about $4 million from the existing 2004 tax to put toward its bill for housing all felony offenders, who make up about 65 percent of the jail population on any given day.

The county also plans to put an estimated $765,000 of its share of the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax toward those daily costs, according to county documents.

The county also supplements its daily costs for the jail with general fund money, to the tune of about $5.1 million a year.

The rest of the jail’s operating costs are funded by various sources — including day-bed costs charged to the cities, local tribes, state Department of Corrections, and other users who keep inmates there — that about matches the amount coming from the 2004 corrections tax.

The new jail would combine the current jail and the interim minimum-security facility inmates and staff. It likely would need only three more full-time sheriff’s deputies than current levels to operate, and would include slight increases in health care staffing, according to a memo from Jail Chief Wendy Jones to Sheriff Bill Elfo.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.

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